“Blushing is the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions,” Charles Darwin once wrote, attempting, in part, to explain shame in humans. He wasn’t the only scientist fascinated by shame; over the years, a small cadre of anthropologists, biologists, and sociologists have also looked at how the acute sensation of being judged can shape a society.
It’s only natural that a feeling so universal should come with a multitude of meanings. Just like the Inuit have many different nuanced words for snow, a culture that places particular emphasis on shame and all its colorful varieties might have more than one name for it. Some languages hardly even distinguish shame from guilt–a similar but arguably very different state of mind.
To try and sort out which languages prioritized shame versus guilt, evolutionary biologist Klaus Jaffe set to work with his colleagues at the Universidad Simón Bolívar in Caracas, Venezuela, to track the words “shame,” “guilt,” “embarrassment,” “pain,” and “fear” in 64 languages. Using Google Translate, they created a chart that plotted the languages on a guilt-shame axis, based on the number of words for each.
There’s a number of fascinating motivations for their work. Jaffe, a trained biologist who started off his career studying ant societies, wants to call attention to the dearth of research on the role shame plays in helping people cooperate. In studying behavior simulations, “I discovered that without shame, societies don’t work,” he says.
Guilt, on the other hand, generally reflects a more interior process, and doesn’t necessarily come with a physiological response, like blushing. Some philosophers have defined guilt as a feeling that occurs when a person fails his or her own personal standards, rather than the standards of a society at large.
“The system works because when you point out a deficiency in behavior, socially, the individual is wracked–they are afraid of what society thinks of them,” Jaffe says. “With this feeling, you can cement societies. You can build trust and cooperation. Without this, trust collapses, and cooperation is impossible.”
Other studies have supported Jaffe’s hypothesis. In 2011, an international group of researchers found that when they asked test subjects to solve problems in groups, the situations that featured shame or emphasized “honor” increased cooperation from the whole team.
“On the other hand, we know that shameless people are very successful,” Jaffe says. “To be a political leader, you have to ignore shame in order to advance. People without shame are very successful, and societies without shame are very unsuccessful. This contradiction is interesting, it produces different equilibriums.”
Going back to Jaffe’s chart, there are a couple of things to notice. First, Azerbaijani and Hebrew stand out as languages that are strikingly shame-based. Latin also includes a fair amount of shame, but also takes first-prize in guilt, too.
It’s interesting then, that the languages that evolved from Latin fall significantly lower on the shame-guilt axis. English is one of the least shameful languages on the graph, while Greek, Spanish, French, and German feature relatively few shame words.
“Societies a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago, they behaved differently than we do today. Today, individuals have much more liberty,” Jaffe suggests as one possible explanation.
Still, Jaffe concedes that Google Translate is a bit of a flawed and error-prone tool. He’s not drawing any hard conclusions from the graph, and doesn’t think anyone should rush to shame-shame any one language. “More than solving a problem, this paper’s calling attention to a problem which calls for more research,” he says.